Failure of Communication

India must face up to the rift between its newsrooms and classrooms

Journalism institutes started coming up outside Indian universities in the 1990s, as existing degree programmes struggled to supply enough journalists to feed a media boom. courtesy asian college of journalism
01 December, 2015

As a professor of journalism at the University of Hyderabad for the last five years, and a media writing teacher for the last two decades, I’ve been asked countless times: what’s the point of a journalism degree? The persistence of this question is a symptom of a rift in Indian journalism, between how we prepare people for the profession and how it is practised. My friends in the media industry hold that the academic orientation of university journalism programmes doesn’t equip their graduates to hit the ground running. My colleagues in academia argue that their job is not to create cookie-cutter media workers, but reflective and critical practitioners of the journalistic craft.

Journalism education in India is caught in a tangle of ideas about what form it should take, particularly in light of the rapid digitisation and globalisation of the media and the new technological skills these changes necessitate. The question before us is what role, if any, university media departments have to play in shaping the journalists and journalism of the future. The industry, with its demand for “market-ready” graduates, would like journalism education to emphasise the nuts and bolts of practice—how to use relevant software, produce a television bulletin, write to tight deadlines—even at the cost of the intellectual abilities academic education can provide. University media programmes are struggling to react. Should they continue to focus on what universities do—develop critical thinking, social and political understanding, and the ability to analyse complex texts and situations—or shift to training people in the latest digital techniques?

Most experienced media professionals would agree that responsible, change-enabling journalism takes more than just technical skill. It requires analytical ability, knowledge of social, political and cultural dynamics, and sensitivity to diverse people and contexts. These are best acquired in the interdisciplinary arenas of the academy. That said, universities cannot ignore the demands of the industry. The only way forward is to start a conversation between media leaders and journalism teachers on how to find a better curricular balance. But from where I sit, the gap between India’s newsrooms and university classrooms looks like a chasm, with little effort from either side to bridge it.

Already, there is a split in Indian journalism education. A recent survey by the Centre for Media Studies, a Delhi-based non-profit organisation, found roughly 310 journalism programmes on offer across India—up from 25 in 1981. Not counting the 54 distance-learning programmes, roughly half of them are university degree courses, whether at the undergraduate or postgraduate level. The other half are certificate and diploma courses run by private, and a handful of publicly funded, media institutes.

Generally, university degree courses are taught over several years—three for undergraduates, two for postgraduates—by faculty with advanced research degrees but often limited industry experience. Undergraduate programmes offer a broad introduction to the field, and supplementary courses in the arts and social sciences, but little or no practical exposure. Most postgraduate programmes place roughly equal emphasis on professional skills, research and critique, and occasionally allow for specialisation in a particular type of media.

Courses at media institutes last anything from a few weeks to a year, and promise to make students job-ready in exchange for a hefty fee. Outside of a few exceptions, such as the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai, they focus almost exclusively on technical skills, and offer no more than cursory exposure to the arts or social sciences. Students come in with bachelor’s degrees, but because they arrive from various fields of prior study and institutions of differing quality, there is no guarantee of their proficiency in analysing complex political, economic and social issues. Some private institutes are affiliated with major media houses, and boast faculties of mid-career and senior journalists. Others are small colleges that are either autonomous or loosely tied to degree-granting universities, with faculties composed by and large of young people with postgraduate degrees in journalism or mass communication but, here again, paltry journalistic experience.

The problem in this mostly either-or scenario is that neither stream of education is producing journalists with the capabilities needed in media today. The CMS report, commissioned to take stock of journalism education in the country, drew on interviews with alumni and faculty from both university and non-university media programmes in ten cities, as well as professionals in print, television and digital media. Among the shortcomings it identified across both degree and non-degree courses were outdated curricula, inadequate infrastructure, a dearth of relevant research, poorly trained faculty members, and a lack of industry involvement in teaching.

University media schools seem to spend a lot of time picking apart the industry, but aren’t doing enough to change it by producing better journalists. Many media outlets, for their part, seem to have given up on journalism graduates, preferring to hire students of languages or the social sciences from prestigious universities instead. (There have been no comprehensive studies of the professional destinations of university journalism graduates, but my estimate is that no more than a quarter of them end up as media professionals.) Some companies—such as the Indian Express Group, the Eenadu Group and the Times Group—rely on media institutes operated by their affiliates for a large share of their young hires. A senior editor at The Hindu told me that the majority of its recruits come in from the Asian College of Journalism, with which the paper has a strong, if informal, connection.

It may help to consider how we arrived at this predicament. In the early decades of the Indian republic, universities were the only training grounds for journalists, and they offered journalism degrees exclusively at the postgraduate level. Their pedagogy was influenced by the socialist environment that prevailed, and focused on social responsibility and the challenges of nation-building, insulated from the pressures of an open market. Over time, perhaps unconsciously, this directed attention more towards social theory and critique than the tools of newsgathering. That intellectual leaning was compounded by a material lack: very few university departments had the resources to produce lab newspapers or audiovisual bulletins.

With news publication scaling up in the 1980s on the back of technological changes—satellite communications, computers, offset printing—and the economic liberalisation of the 1990s bringing in investment and opening the industry to private television news, the media entered a boom. But university departments of journalism were not producing enough graduates to feed it. This produced two responses. First, large media houses began setting up their own skills-training courses, which were later copied by private institutes. Second, the University Grants Commission, the official body charged with maintaining standards in Indian higher education, approved undergraduate-level journalism and mass communication courses, and several universities began offering these in the 1990s.

But the UGC did not take specific steps to address the shortcomings of university journalism education—lack of production equipment, few teachers with media experience, little or no industry exposure for students—and these filtered down from postgraduate programmes to the new undergraduate programmes. If anything, the UGC’s rigid hiring norms have exacerbated the division between the industry and the academy. For instance, when filling teaching positions at media departments, candidates receive no advantage for field experience, so people with advanced research degrees but no industry background are preferred over those who have fewer academic and more professional credentials to show. Career progression is tied to research output, which provides no incentive for faculty to engage in professional journalism. Moreover, public universities have no provisions for lateral entry into higher-level academic positions by senior journalists.

Sadly, nobody has tried to start a serious dialogue on how to address this problem in India. But in other countries also experiencing an industry-academy divide, most notably in the United States, they have—and though the phenomenon has specific causes and manifestations here, the US experience could show us a way forward.

In 2005, two philanthropic American foundations established the Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education. One of its reports describes how the project was born of a sense that “journalism was in trouble,” and that US journalism programmes—especially postgraduate ones—were “behind the times and, in many cases, marginal players on their campuses.” After extensive consultation, the project decided to act on three fronts: integrating participating journalism programmes more firmly with other departments and programmes at their parent universities; creating an internship programme that allowed students to pursue investigative and innovative reporting; and funding research and discussion on the needs of journalism education.

The project’s research funding led to numerous deeply considered recommendations. The report ‘Educating Journalists: A New Plea for the University Tradition,’ for instance, authored by three former deans of journalism departments, argued strongly for strengthening postgraduate journalism education as a way of bolstering the profession in the United States, and called on journalism programmes to “define a zone where the university’s mission and the profession’s can usefully overlap.” Such recommendations have fed into a continuing debate that includes both journalists and teachers, and has identified several needs: among them, greater industry involvement in the classroom; good education in the social sciences for journalists grappling with an increasingly complex world; and pedagogic experimentation in integrating hands-on technical training into curricula.

Understanding the specifics of how these findings could apply to India will require concerted dialogue and research. But here too, some of the shifts necessary are already clear. University departments must be more open to partnering with the industry, going beyond just internships and placements to start teaching practical journalism in the classroom. The industry must respond in kind—at present, it is more common for practitioners to visit classrooms than for academics to visit newsrooms. Also, the UGC should recognise that journalism is at once a professional and an intellectual discipline, where practice and theory overlap, and see that this is reflected in more flexible hiring norms for media programmes.

In India’s giant media market, it would be difficult to argue that journalism education should only take place in universities. But universities have a large responsibility in reimagining journalism education to make it, as a whole, more technologically, socially and politically responsive. Though studies on this topic in India are rare, many stories I hear from working journalists suggest that academic education can still be crucial to success in the media today. At a recent gathering of my department’s alumni, a senior journalist at a large regional daily remarked that it was the grounding in social theory and development studies she received at university that equipped her to pursue neglected stories. A television journalist who produces a show on gender issues for a channel in Hyderabad said that the perspective she acquired from her university education has made a crucial difference in her approach to the job. By contrast, at a recent workshop, an independent journalist with a diploma from a media institute in Delhi told me that, when she began her reporting career, she had to “unlearn” everything she was taught there. Her experience is a reminder that India’s journalists and journalism teachers need to start talking about how to give future media professionals both the technical and intellectual tools they need.